MELISSA BLOCK, host:
The leader of the nation's largest polygamist group is now in police custody in Las Vegas. Warren Jeffs had been on the FBI's 10 most wanted list. He was charged in Arizona and Utah for allegedly facilitating polygamous marriages involving under-aged girls. Jeffs has more than 6,000 followers who believe their leader is a prophet of God.
From Salt Lake City, NPR's Howard Berkes reports.
HOWARD BERKES reporting:
The prophet of polygamy hadn't been seen in public in more than two years. Warren Jeffs was determined to avoid capture judging by the list of items found in the red Cadillac Escalade he was discovered in last night near Las Vegas. George Tagliotti is with the Nevada Highway Patrol.
Mr. GEORGE TAGLIOTTI (Nevada Highway Patrol): There were several items found in the car, everything from a large number of cellular telephones, laptop computers, three wigs, quite a bit of cash, in excess of $50,000 in cash. The inventory search is not complete, so we haven't gotten completely through the vehicle, but there were lots of items in that car and we're going to be looking at them.
BERKES: Also found were sunglasses, portable radios, police scanners and unopened envelopes believed to contain cash contributions from his followers. Warren Jeffs had been the subject of an episode of the America's Most Wanted TV show. He was on the FBI's 10 most wanted list, right up there with Osama Bin Laden and the reward for his capture reached $100,000.
But it was a routine traffic stop triggered by a temporary license plate that transformed Jeffs from fugitive to defendant. Police had feared violent resistance, notes Steven Martinez of the Vegas office of the FBI.
Mr. STEVEN MARTINEZ (FBI): There was speculation that if we did encounter Mr. Jeffs that there could be a violent confrontation or something like that. I can assure you there was not. He was arrested without incident.
BERKES: The fuss over Warren Jeffs isn't solely about polygamy. There are thousands of polygamists outside his group who are not targets of prosecution. Jeffs has a particular brand of polygamy that involves under-age girls, some as young as 13, according to former members of his group. They're allegedly assigned to men decades older who may already have other wives.
Jeffs is accused in Utah of rape as an accomplice for facilitating under-aged marriages. He faces a similar charge in Arizona, which is also prosecuting eight of his followers. Mark Shurtleff is the Attorney General of Utah.
Mr. MARK SHURTLEFF (Utah Attorney General): He's been telling them for years, two years, that he will never be taken. That God is protecting him and he is above the law and can't be touched by civil authorities. So it's just been proven that's not the case and he will have to stand to answer to the law and justice. So that's an important message to his followers.
BERKES: Someone who knows Jeffs and his followers better than most believes the arrest will only embolden them. Rodney Parker is an attorney who has represented Warren Jeffs.
Mr. RODNEY PARKS (Attorney): Not only does it galvanize the sense of persecution, but it brings the people closer together. It makes them more insular and makes them more convinced that they're right.
BERKES: Jeffs is the biggest catch yet in a crack down on polygamy that began eight years ago. His Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints dominates adjacent towns on the Utah/Arizona border. Polygamy is part of the group's religion, which mirrors the early teachings of Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon faith. Mormons disowned polygamy in 1890 and Jeffs and his group have no connection with mainstream Mormons. A leader in the polygamist towns reached by NPR declined comment.
Howard Berkes, NPR News, Salt Lake City.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.